Paula Sousa on her brand Munna and pro­mot­ing her coun­try’s crafts­man­ship

Paula Sousa, founder of Por­tuguese fur­ni­ture brand Munna, talks about her her­itage, not fol­low­ing trends and the im­por­tance of lov­ing peo­ple when de­sign­ing.

Jetgala - - CONTENTS - by Dione Bel

Although the de­sign scene in Por­tu­gal is still in its in­fancy – hav­ing started less than two decades ago – the coun­try has long been recog­nised for its savoir­faire in crafts like up­hol­stery, car­pen­try, met­al­smithing, cast­ing, stone­ma­sonry and gild­ing. And it is pre­cisely th­ese ar­ti­sanal tra­di­tions that have par­tially helped the coun­try to recover from a deep re­ces­sion af­ter decades un­der a re­pres­sive regime, lead­ing to a new­found en­thu­si­asm in Por­tuguese de­sign.

The north­ern coastal city of Porto in par­tic­u­lar has emerged as a cre­ative pow­er­house – re­ferred to as Por­tu­gal’s fur­ni­ture cap­i­tal with its long tra­di­tion of fur­ni­ture and tex­tiles man­u­fac­tur­ing – as new lux­ury Por­tuguese home­ware brands have launched.

One en­tre­pre­neur lead­ing the charge in har­ness­ing the power of lo­cal crafts­man­ship is Paula Sousa, 40, who was born post­dic­ta­tor­ship and con­se­quently pos­sesses a global out­look, in­tent on pro­mot­ing the “Made in Por­tu­gal” la­bel around the

world. Af­ter study­ing at Porto’s Col­lege of Art and De­sign, the Porto na­tive worked for Congiu, a de­sign stu­dio in Mi­lan, and as an in­te­rior de­signer for seven years. Feel­ing there was a void in the mar­ket for con­tem­po­rary, el­e­gant, sculp­tural and emo­tion-evok­ing fur­ni­ture in­spired by the cin­ema and var­i­ous artis­tic pe­ri­ods like mid-cen­tury mod­ern or Art Deco, she founded Munna in 2008, which cel­e­brates its 10th an­niver­sary this year, fol­lowed by the na­ture-in­spired Gin­ger & Jag­ger ex­plor­ing dif­fer­ent aes­thet­ics, tech­niques and ma­te­ri­als four years later, and serves as the CEO and cre­ative direc­tor of both brands.

Spe­cial­is­ing in up­hol­stered chairs, so­fas, stools, ta­bles, and fold­ing screens in a mul­ti­tude of colours, Munna is based in Porto to be close to its ar­ti­sans. Pro­duc­tion is re­stricted to just over 1,000 pieces per year as all the fur­ni­ture is hand­crafted, and each piece takes up to eight weeks to man­u­fac­ture. The brand even in­vites Por­tuguese de­sign­ers to rein­vent ex­ist­ing cre­ations as lim­ited edi­tions that are more cre­ative and less com­mer­cial.

Munna fur­ni­ture is a showcase of Por­tuguese ma­te­ri­als, es­pe­cially high­qual­ity tex­tiles like vel­vet, leather and silk. It in­cor­po­rates fine wood ve­neers such as ebony, wal­nut and rose­wood and de­tailed plat­ing in brass, nickel and cop­per com­bined with the ap­pli­ca­tion of gold, sil­ver and cop­per leaf and pre­mium lac­quers. Munna has been piv­otal in de­vel­op­ing a new gen­er­a­tion of ar­ti­sans, work­ing with lo­cal work­shops where the crafts­men range in age from their 20s to their 60s, with trades passed down from one gen­er­a­tion to the next. “What we need now in Por­tu­gal is to main­tain cul­ture, to keep tra­di­tions alive, and the ar­ti­sans un­der­stand that pro­duc­tion is cul­ture,” Sousa states.

Crit­i­cal suc­cess for Munna came in the form of the Be­comes Me arm­chair, which took home the 2012 In­ter­na­tional Prod­uct De­sign Award, but the first piece to ap­pear on the cover of a mag­a­zine was the Candy arm­chair in 2009. The Sophia arm­chair re­cently fea­tured in the spy com­edy Kings­man: The Golden Cir­cle, and David Byrne and Jen­nifer Lopez are clients. Van Cleef & Ar­pels hand­picked the Mar­garet arm­chair and sofa to em­bel­lish its flag­ship stores in­ter­na­tion­ally, and Munna has col­lab­o­rated with Parisian high-end fur­nish­ing fab­rics brand Lelièvre and lux­ury fash­ion house Chloé.

Sousa may have started off work­ing alone in a garage, but to­day she em­ploys 17 staff, of which five com­pose her in­house de­sign team. Present in over 50 mar­kets world­wide and more than 100 res­i­den­tial, com­mer­cial and hos­pi­tal­ity projects – in­clud­ing the Four Sea­sons Ho­tel Ge­orge V in Paris, the Man­darin Ori­en­tal Hyde Park and St. James Court Ho­tel in Lon­don and Le Royal Méri­dien in Abu Dhabi – Munna has show­rooms in Saudi

Ara­bia, Moscow, Istanbul and Mi­ami. Its top three mar­kets are the UK, France and Rus­sia, and rev­enues achieved over €3 mil­lion last year, while Sousa con­tin­ues to work hard to en­sure the pro­duc­tion of orig­i­nal, high-end Por­tuguese-made fur­ni­ture that will last a life­time.

What did you learn from your past work ex­pe­ri­ences that you have brought to Munna?

You first need to know what your clients need, so work­ing as an in­te­rior de­signer was im­por­tant for me to get the no­tion of space, bud­get, colour schemes, ty­pol­ogy of spa­ces. I knew what I needed to have from dif­fer­ent brands to present a very good project to my clients. And in terms of arm­chairs and so­fas, I felt there was a lack of emo­tion. There was some­thing miss­ing in the mar­ket. I also wanted to go out from my coun­try to un­der­stand what the best were do­ing, and Mi­lan is a mar­ket for de­sign and brands. I worked for a stu­dio there where we stud­ied dif­fer­ent brands like Minotti, Molteni and Alessi, and we de­signed prod­ucts that they might want to have, which the main de­signer could then go to present to them. We had to study brand­ing, brand val­ues, mis­sion, age, ty­pol­ogy of con­sumers, types of prod­ucts they were lack­ing. So I learnt dur­ing that pe­riod how I could drive my own com­pany in the fu­ture and how I could man­age a de­sign team. Then I com­ple­mented my ed­u­ca­tion with a post-grad­u­ate de­gree in com­mu­ni­ca­tion and lux­ury mar­ket­ing be­cause I wanted to cre­ate a lux­ury brand, not com­mer­cial de­sign.

How would you de­scribe the Munna aes­thetic?

It is a very fem­i­nine, fun and cin­e­mato­graphic brand. The aim is to pro­duce pieces that are new clas­sics, so they don’t fol­low trends but are time­less. In my work, I’m in­spired by art be­cause an artist is al­ways try­ing to say some­thing that no one has thought of be­fore, and se­condly by fash­ion be­cause of the colours and the moods.

Tell me about your cre­ative process.

It’s a very chaotic thing. We never start with the needs, solv­ing prob­lems. We start with an idea we want to do, then what type of prod­uct do we need that we don’t have in the col­lec­tion be­cause you need to have bal­ance. I al­ways do the brief­ing for the team with mood boards, with ideas and feel­ings that I want to pass on, with prod­ucts that are miss­ing. We start to have meet­ings, then the de­sign direc­tor dis­trib­utes to dif­fer­ent de­sign­ers the pieces they are go­ing to cre­ate. They sketch, then we put ev­ery­thing on a big wall and I start to edit, ad­just and re­fine with­out know­ing which de­signer drew the sketch. Af­ter we do 2D and 3D mod­els on the com­puter, we speak with the ar­ti­sans to see what’s

pos­si­ble to pro­duce – never be­fore, so we don’t limit the process. Then we make the pro­to­type.

Which is your favourite Munna prod­uct?

It’s hard to say be­cause I like so many, but the Mar­garet chair that I de­signed ap­peals to me most. It’s very sim­ple, but it’s a rein­ven­tion of the wing chair. And then I love the Chan­tal arm­chair, which I have in my apart­ment in Porto, be­cause it’s so unique and won a 2017 Good De­sign Award and Euro­pean Prod­uct De­sign Award.

Do you fol­low pre­vail­ing fur­ni­ture trends?

No be­cause if you fol­low trends, you are not be­ing your own brand and fol­low­ing your own val­ues; you are just com­pet­ing with some­thing that al­ready ex­ists. It’s bet­ter to cre­ate a trend.

Has Munna started a trend?

When we cre­ated the Fringes col­lec­tion, which is op­u­lent and baroque, fringes weren’t trendy. I never thought it was go­ing to be so well re­ceived, but it was on the cover of all the mag­a­zines, trend alerts and ev­ery­thing, so I think we cre­ated that. It was also one of the most chal­leng­ing pieces we’ve made be­cause you have to cut the fringes per­fectly like you are cut­ting hair.

What is your vi­sion of the fu­ture of de­sign?

The fu­ture of de­sign can only go fur­ther if the needs of hu­man be­ings are un­der­stood. In the end, it’s about peo­ple, not ob­jects. Ev­ery­thing you de­sign is for peo­ple, so de­sign­ers need to love peo­ple first of all and to cre­ate some­thing that can im­prove their lives in terms of psy­chol­ogy, func­tion­al­ity and beauty. If you sit in a chair that’s sexy or beau­ti­ful, you feel even more beau­ti­ful. This is the ba­sis of de­sign, to study peo­ple even more.

What are your thoughts on Asia?

I re­ally love Asia – I fly there at least once per year. I’ve been to Bei­jing, Shang­hai, Hong Kong, Ma­cau, and Tai­wan. It’s chaotic which I love, and then you drive out from the city and you see peo­ple con­nected with na­ture in a way that I don’t see any­where else in the world. And I love the cul­tures and re­li­gions there as well. I also love the way you give im­por­tance to lux­ury and how things are made. Asia is a very good mar­ket and we have very good deal­ers there.

What are your up­com­ing projects?

We are grow­ing the range of Munna prod­ucts and we are go­ing into bed­rooms, things like head­boards. We don’t have the con­cept of sleep yet in our col­lec­tions. And we will con­tinue to in­vest in im­prov­ing qual­ity; it’s my main fo­cus in the year ahead.

Im­ages courtesy of Christoph Haiderer (por­trait) and Munna

A rein­ven­tion of the wing chair, the Mar­garet Arm­chair is Sousa’s favourite be­cause of its sim­plic­ity

The fun and fem­i­nine Fringe col­lec­tion is a trend­set­ter

The Chan­tal arm­chair won the 2017 Good De­sign Award and Euro­pean Prod­uct De­sign Award

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